Cutting down or quitting cigarettes can make our oceans a better place
Cigarette butts are the most discarded waste item worldwide! These small filters account for approximately 766.6 million kilograms of rubbish each year, and unfortunately, they are the most common form of litter in our seas.
The risk of smoking to our own health is well known and publicised by the World Health Organisation, killing around 8 million people a year. But what about the health of our planet? Is it now time to put away the cigarettes for good for both ourselves and the environment?
Choking the ocean
How many times have you been walking and seen cigarette butts on the pavements in town, in the park, or on our beaches? It may seem nonchalant, flicking such a tiny cigarette butt onto the floor, but make no mistake, they are killers.
Butts, or filters, present in the vast majority of both packaged and hand rolled cigarettes, are made up of a compressed mesh of plastic fibres. As with much of the plastic we discard, these filters do not breakdown in the environment. This is all alongside additional associated plastic waste that comes with the cigarettes, for example, the tobacco pouches, or plastic tubes containing the filters, which are also regularly discarded.
The filters due to their small size and light-weight are commonly swept by wind and rain into bodies of water. This means that whether these are discarded right on the beach, or inland outside your local pub, they commonly make their way to our oceans, joining much of the other plastic waste that gathers in the sea.
The small size of these filters, and their white colour, commonly lead to them being mistaken as food by marine-life. Fish and birds are particularly vulnerable to this life-threatening error. When consumed, these non-digestible plastic butts, can cause gastro-intestinal blockages, eventually killing the animal which ate them. This problem can also be passed up the food chain, harming larger animals through plastic poising or creating blockages in their digestive system.
Worse still, some of the nasty chemicals that filters catch, leach into the surrounding water effecting marine-life instead. They include cadmium, lead, and arsenic, all of which are particularly toxic.
The amount of harmful chemicals present in these small filters may appear negligible when compared to the volume of water in the sea. However, a study in 2011 by San Diego University suggests that just one smoked cigarette butt in a single litre of water is sufficient to kill both marine and freshwater fish. Now let’s think about that in the context of 766.6 million kilograms of these filters being added to the sea each year!
The world is not an ashtray
Beach cleans and litter picking groups across the world are doing their best to remove these filters from the immediate environment when possible. However, prevention is always better than cure, and the best way to safeguard our seas is to say goodbye to cigarettes forever.
Smoking is still one of the leading causes of death globally, but thankfully smoking rates are slowly declining in many countries. Reducing this rate further is the target of many governments, including the UKs plan to go smoke free for 2030, or New Zealand’s ambitious bill to prevent those aged 14 and under from ever legally buying cigarettes.
Whilst social pressure and politics is moving slowly in the right direction, individuals too have the ability to help our seas from cigarettes. This could come in the form of supporting a friend of family member to cut-down and quit smoking, or if you smoke yourself, giving your-self the chance to stop.
Highlighting and changing attitudes on how people dispose of cigarettes is also crucial. The bewildering acceptance for cigarette butts to be disposed of on the ground and ‘stamped out’ must stop. Using ashtrays in smoking areas and public places can help reduce this, alongside pocket ashtrays which can be used when these are inaccessible. However, perhaps the biggest change must come from challenging the general perception of cigarette waste, highlighting the harm they can cause to our planet. By spreading the word of the damage caused by cigarette filters, you could help change the attitudes of others for the benefit of the environment.
A new potential problem…
In recent years, vaping has been heavily marketed as a healthier alternative to smoking, and numbers of those switching to vaping are growing. Whilst this will hopefully lower the number of cigarette filters entering the environment, Vapes, especially disposable ones, present a new potential waste challenge of their own.
Vapes can be tricky to dispose of due to their composite design that includes plastics, general ‘e-waste’ (which can contain hazardous chemicals and materials), and their batteries (often containing lithium). Incorrectly disposing of these Vapes would not only contribute to our current plastic crisis, but much like cigarettes, they could leach toxic and hazardous substances into our environment. Furthermore, a significant number of precious materials which could be recycled from e-waste, instead end up going to waste.
As with anything single-use, there are usually better, reusable, alternatives, and this is the same for Vapes. Using refillable vape pens could help reduce the potential damage caused by disposable ones, so long as pods and refill packaging is recycled wherever possible. You can also recycle vapes themselves alongside other electronic e-waste, ideally removing the battery from the vape and recycling it separately alongside other batteries.
If we stay ahead and act quickly on properly managing how we re-use and dispose of vapes, we can hopefully mitigate this growing waste problem. However, if we are to protect our environment in the future, we must also help spread the word about this potential crisis. Ultimately, governments promoting vaping as an alternative, and private companies marketing and selling vapes, need to be held accountable and provide plans for the entire lifecycle of them, including the sustainability of their production and their proper disposal.